Découvrez les bibliothèques de la Ville de Genève
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Developed at the turn of the 20th century to make the science of geography accessible to all, the collection of non-Genevan maps is now of interest above all for its historical value.

Le Clercq, Chrétien. Carte générale de la Nouvelle France. Paris, 1691. (sans cote)

The collection comprises around 45,000 sheet maps stored in drawers, while most of the library’s folding maps and atlases are kept in the general collections.

Historical reasons explain the chronological limits of the collection, which runs, in steadily increasing numbers of copies, from the 16th century and just a few specimens to the mid-20th century, with a significant proportion of maps from the 19th century.

The collection makes it possible to document the whole Earth, even the Moon, save for maps representing Geneva and the surrounding region, which are conserved in the Centre d’iconographie genevoise.

Every kind of map and geographical chart is represented in the collection, the most numerous being engraved maps naturally, many of which are heightened with watercolor or show handwritten annotations. Handwritten maps, often done using tracing paper, are also frequently found, while far less prestigious items add their own documentary value to the corpus, including old maps, newspaper clippings, and large-format rolled maps. A few relief maps and globes round out the collection.


Until the late 19th century, cartographic documents, rare at the time, were likened to printed books and dealt with as such. Maps were classified according to the system then in use and under the heading of “Geography.” The Bibliothèque’s 1870 catalogue for printed works makes it quite easy to find them.

The creation of the Department of Maps (Département des cartes et plans) is associated with a significant event in the history of the Bibliothèque.

The key figure in the story, the engraver Charles Perron (1837-1909) from Carouge, had caught the eye of the famous geographer Élisée Reclus (1830-1905), who appreciated his artistic and graphic sense. Deep ideological affinities, moreover, and a number of friends in common bound the two men, who shared the same “social” ideas. Reclus, who lived under threat in France, took refuge in Switzerland in 1872, where he wrote his Nouvelle géographie universelle. The description of the Earth, country by country, according to the criteria of physical geography, was meant to show the connections between humans and the Earth they inhabited.

To make research work easier and instruct the general public, Perron founded a Musée cartographique (the Museum of Cartography), which opened in 1907 in the building that was home to the Bibliothèque. The pieces making up the museum were displayed in five great series (world maps, maps of Switzerland, maps of the canton and city of Geneva, history of cartographic draftsmanship, and sea charts), with an accompanying catalogue. In those days, over 600 people visited the museum each year. In 1922, after it closed for financial reasons, one could only visit the museum by appointment. In 1927, the Musée cartographique had to be substantially reduced in size due to a lack of space; eventually it disappeared plain and simple.

During World War I, most of the foreign geographic services that had been donating maps to the Dépôt suspended their contributions to the Swiss organization, and the Dépôt looked to fill out its already extensive collection of maps of Geneva and Switzerland.

Editions Hachette published between 1876 and 1894 the 19 volumes of Reclus’s Nouvelle géographie universelle, which was illustrated with thousands of maps, most of which were done by Charles Perron. In 1891, with the work of getting all of the Nouvelle géographie universelle into print complete, Reclus left Switzerland, passing on his maps to his friend Perron, who became active in public life and repeatedly called for cartography to be recognized as a full-fledged science, stressing its importance in education.

In 1893, Perron donated 6813 maps to the Bibliothèque, adding numerous atlases and works on geography to this significant corpus in order to promote the study of the discipline. He was officially named keeper of the collection in 1903 and set out to methodically classify and catalogue it. Genevans were roundly encouraged to donate maps to contribute to this scientific undertaking. In 1905, the “Dépôt des cartes de la Ville de Genève” (the Store of Maps of the City of Geneva) was given two exhibition rooms, a storage room, and an office for the keeper.

In the 1930s, the library directors cited a lack of funds and space when they abandoned all plans for developing the department. Even if it was revised in 1946 to make it more flexible, the systematic classification of the maps continued to reflect the state of the world in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, the Genevan, Swiss, French, and Savoyard maps were reclassified and catalogued. In 1993, the Genevan maps were removed from the Bastions building and placed in the Centre d'iconographie genevoise.

All research must be carried out in the company of the librarian in charge.
Except in the case of exhibitions, no loans will be allowed.
Photography, but not photocopying, is permissible.

Promenade des Bastions 8
1205 Genève

T: +41 22 418 28 00
F: +41 22 418 28 01

Nicolas Schaetti
Conservateur responsable de l'Unité Collections spéciales
T: +41 22 418 28 11